Tom Whicher is featured in Spark the Difference's Humans of Healthcare art exhibition and is interviewed here by Sam Meikle, founder of Spark the Difference.
You'll also find links to Tom's two interview warm-ups: (1) Getting to know Tom in 10 questions and (2) Tom's drawing challenge.
Sam: Welcome to the Humans of Healthcare edition of the Spark the Difference podcast. My guest in this episode is Tom Whicher. Tom, thanks for joining us.
Tom: Hi Sam.
Sam: Where is your accent from?
Tom: Home Counties, English, I’m afraid.
Sam: What does that mean for people who are not English?
Tom: Surrey. Hampshire borders. Guildford - kind of suburban, wishes he came from South London. Doesn’t quite.
Sam: Where have you spent most of your working life?
Tom: Most of it in England, working my way from all over the country really doing consultancy, physically and moving from engineering slowly crossing to healthcare.
Sam: What made you decide to start working healthcare?
Tom: I actually didn't choose to, initially. I got sent to Wolverhampton, to do my first ever healthcare project, which was looking at clinical coding - not very exciting, it’s important but it’s not very exciting. Working with the teams there to make sure they were capturing all the right comorbidities for patients; making sure that the hospital was correctly recording what it was doing.
And I didn’t really enjoy it, at all. It was dull and it was just about filling in the right forms, which is very un-me - but I did develop a real interest in the NHS and I found it fascinating seeing the different ways that people worked in the healthcare system and how disconnect a lot of it was.
Sam: Tell me more about that.
Tom: So it's just the standard things that people talk about, which is one hand not talking to the other hand; an awful lot of repetition of process, which is frustrating if you're a clinician or someone working within healthcare, but downright scary if you're patient. You know - the fact that I’m having to repeat myself again and again and again and people don’t seem to understanding that and actually it’s really important that I’m allergic to antibiotics - is a really big deal and im beginning to see the kind of how disorganised admin process is or lack of information ended up creating really poor experience of people.
A classic one I always talk about is sitting in outpatients department while watching patient after patient after patient turn up with the best intention in the world, at reception with four different letters which all has conflicting things. Loads of them had either missed their appointment or in the wrong building and how to run somewhere else to get there on time and being treated like it was their fault. That was the kind of thing that made me want to do we do now.
Sam: What do you do for work now?
Tom: So I am one of the founders of Dr Doctor. We’re helping patients access NHS services.
Sam: And how do you do that?
Tom: We’ve got a combination of online and smart phone tools that let you book an appointment, change an appointment, find out why you can be there, make sure it’s valuable for you and it suits you. It helps hospitals make sure that they're delivering the right care to the right people
Sam: And how long have you been doing that for?
Tom: We started doing that in July 2012.
Sam: What keeps you going?
Tom: What keeps you going is really interesting one, isn’t it? I think it changes month by month and year by year.
It's kind of when you first start doing something like this, it’s the excitement of building something new. That goes. And you end up with - you know, working in any industry I think is a cycle. Working in any start up is a cycle. Working in a healthcare startup, is a really quite pronounced cycle.
You get over the excitement of building something new and you have tough times. Then you get some working and you have really good times. You start to see the effect on individuals and that keeps you going.
Then you begin to build business, for me anyway. You begin to think that all this stuff that we’ve been talking about the last few years we might actually be a bit be able to do some of.
We might actually make some impact and at the moment that is the thing that keeps me going is say, ‘OK if we know what we’ve built works we know it helps people but we might actually be on achieving a scale now that actually makes a difference at a system level which should be an amazing thing.’
Sam: What has working in health and social care services meant to you?
Tom: It's taught me a lot about the value of public services generally. It's taught me that life is a lot more than just kind of the pound in your pocket. There are a lot of people out there that do things because they love it and they love working with people. It's made me really deeply passionate about what we have uniquely, I think, in the UK in a public health service. It’s made me realize how many people that health service really do so much and we should everything we can to protect it.
Sam: Thinking about when you or a family member used health or social care services, can you tell me about a time when things didn't go so well?
Tom: So a really good example of that is my friend Ed who - I'm a big sailor - and we were doing a sailing event together. He got hit by boom and he had an amazing injury, which was he hit the back of his head with the boom and as it knocked him across the boat, he then caved in his forehead as well. So had a front and back cranial injury.
Within 15 minutes, he had been helicoptered off the boat. He had been taken to Southampton general which is one of the world's best neuroscience places, he’d been operated on and he was then in a coma for three months.
We obviously all went and visited him. I mean it was, for all of us, because I was at university at the time, it was a horrible experience - most of all for him obviously - but to see the quality of care he got at every point along that journey, which was never questioned, there was always someone to help him.
The best consultants in the world were there to answer his questions, allay his mother's fears, allay our fears, day after day after day after day and to watch him go through almost a two-year kind of recovery process, everything covered without having to think about is this might cost anything personally, was quite amazing.
He is a miracle, ‘cause he should have died that day. He really should of. Everything came together, to mean that he’s alive and he's just has a baby girl.
Sam: Ahhh, lovely. What one piece of advice would you give a young professional just starting out on a healthcare career, about how to retain their values or how to stay human in increasingly difficult and stressed environment?
Tom: You got to stay positive, you got to stay positive every day. Talk to the little people you know. I think that’s really important.
It's not about looking up the chain all the time. Talk to the people on reception that have been there for 30 years. Understand their stories. It’ll help you because the most powerful person in the organization is probably that receptionist, but it also means you can learn from all the experiences that they have had they really have had a lot.
Then at the same time, stay pragmatic because I think its really easy in the current climate to get really worn down by the fact you can put in huge hours and not feel valued and everything seems to be about money. Whilst actually we run the most sufficient healthcare service in the world.
Stay pragmatic. Get little things, done day by day and you'll see change and you’ll see growth and you’ll feel worthwhile.
Sam: Knowing what you know now, if you could, what one piece of advice would you give yourself starting out on your healthcare career?
Tom: I would spend less time trying to speak to the people at the top of the system and more time doing what I just said and talking to the people in the middle of the system.
Finding the just individually excited managers, clinicians, receptionists and working with them and not worrying about the overall healthcare strategy piece. It does matter at some point, but it doesn't matter initially. I think you need to find on the ground problems you can solve first.
Sam: Thank you. If you feel comfortable to do so, can you please tell me about the scariest, darkest or most challenging moment in your career?
Tom: Probably for me actually, the darkest times are when you don't know what to do next. When there's no one that can tell you what to do next and somehow you got to find an answer to question that no one’s quite articulated yet.
That's hard. That's really hard, but I think that's also really vital part of creating change, any sort of change. Then you do find the questions so you can answer them and you find a way out eventually.
Sam: A lot of leaders and inspirational speakers talk about the comfort zone. What's your relationship with your comfort zone?
Tom: That is a really interesting one. It's probably become too intimate again, recently, I would say. We as a business are at the point of kind of scale what we've done, so there's a lot of repeating what you’ve done before, but of course, that’s not always the answer right.
Often the answer is to innovate again and to find a new way of doing something. I’m probably too comfortable. I don’t like being in it, interestingly. I like getting out of it, but I like being able to find it again. I think that’s quite important.
Sam: What has working in healthcare taught you about people?
Tom: It's taught me that people aren't as selfish as we’re led to believe.
I think this kind of a dogma in the press and in the way that we construct models around our economy which suggests that everyone is out to maximise their career, for a certain set of returns which are usually financial.
You quickly learn that isn't true at all. The healthcare service is filled with people that really, really want give back and desperately do everything they can every day to do that. That might just be little things like saying hello to the person in bed two. I don't think that is very well reflected in the public conscious – subconscious, rather and in the way that I think the press talks about things. I think that is really important that we remember that. There is more to life then I'm out for a self, mate.
Sam: What have you had to work hardest at, to be a success in your job?
Tom: I think tenacity is really important. I'm naturally not a starter – finisher, I'm a starter, starter, starter, starter. So finding the patience and tenacity to keep driving at something, is probably the biggest individual thing. Combine that with being as organised as you possibly can be.
Sam: How difficult has that been?
Tom: It is really hard, that's really, really tough. I am constantly being distracted by the new shiny exciting thing over there, but you’ve got to have real mental toughness to drag yourself back to the dull email that you have to write or the proposal, or bit of maths that you have to do. That's the stuff that actually creates the exciting change
Sam: What help you what has helped you stick to that and to have the tenacity?
Tom: My favourite quote I've ever read in book about management is by Ben Horowitz and that is ‘there are no silver bullets but there are lots of lead bullets’. I’m one of those people who always thought yeah that is one big solution that will fix everything and we can do the next thing.
That was one of those quotes that made me go, ‘oh yeah, to create big exciting change it takes lots and lots and lots of little things from lots and lots of people’. The breakthrough overnight number one success album – there’s no such thing as an overnight success – there’s lots of lead bullets.
Sam: Looking back across your career to date what do you hope the people you've worked with remember you for?
Tom: Hopefully a sense of humour and an ability to get things done – but, I think it might only be one of those two.
Sam: Thank you for your time today Tom. Any final thoughts?
Tom: If you want to make a career in healthcare, now is a great time. Take the opportunities, be pragmatic and remember, always do things for the right reason.
I think that the NHS is the most amazing thing that we have in the UK and we all need to be aware of that, promote it, protect it and make it even more amazing. So it’s still around for future generations.
Sam: Thank you very much for your time today Tom, it’s been a pleasure.
Tom: Not at all.
Sam: And thanks for listening.
Tom: Bye bye.